Undocumented Organ Transplants

By Brad Segal

Manuel—not his real name—was admitted to the hospital with decompensated heart failure. As a child he had scarlet fever which, left untreated, had caused the valves of his heart to calcify and stiffen. Over time, pumping against increased resistance, his heart’s contractions began to weaken until finally, they lost all synchrony and the normal function of his heart spiraled out of control. At this stage, his fate was tied to whether or not he would receive a new heart in time.

He was in his 30’s and had no other illnesses. From a medical perspective, Manuel was the ideal candidate for a cardiac transplant. But a decade ago Manuel crossed the United States border in pursuit of a better life. As an undocumented immigrant, he was ineligible for the insurance coverage necessary to pay for a heart transplant. After being thoroughly evaluated by the hospital’s transplant center, given his modest financial resources and inability to obtain new insurance coverage, Manuel was not placed on the waiting list for a new heart.

The average heart transplant costs about a million dollars to perform. Subsequent follow-up care adds another $30,000 annually. Health insurance will usually cover most, if not all, of these costs. But uninsured patients are kept off transplant lists on the grounds that the inability to pay for care allegedly jeopardizes an organ’s long-term success. Continue reading